Outdoor Cancer Therapy Comes to Flathead

By Beacon Staff

First Descents, an outdoor program for adults with cancer, takes its unique therapeutic philosophy to locations across the country, from North Carolina to California and up into Canada.

And when First Descents comes to Montana, when it comes back to its roots, it stays for awhile. This year, the program is staying for four weeks, from July 3 to July 30.

According to First Descents’ mission statement, the program “offers young adult cancer fighters and survivors (ages 18 to 39) a free week-long outdoor adventure experience designed to enable them to climb, paddle and surf beyond their diagnosis, defy their cancer, reclaim their lives and connect with others doing the same.”

Brad Ludden, First Descents’ 30-year-old founder, grew up in Kalispell and makes sure to bring his program back to the area each year.

“This is one of the few places where they actually have four programs,” Amy May, of First Descents’ public relations partner Outside Media, said. “It’s super important for them to be in Kalispell.”

When Ludden was 12 years old and already kayaking internationally, his 38-year-old aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer. As he watched her battle cancer, the young Ludden noted how little support was available to her.

That experience, combined with his time spent volunteering and teaching kayaking at a pediatric oncology camp, set the stage for Ludden’s founding of First Descents in 2001. By that time, Ludden was a world-renowned kayaker, having kayaked in more than 20 countries as a teenager.

In Ludden’s professional kayaking career, he has become known for “first descents,” which are adventures where he becomes the first person to ever successfully kayak a river or section of river.

There are two consistent themes with First Descents. One is Ludden’s belief that kayaking, and other outdoor activities, can be a life-changing experience for people with cancer. Secondly, Ludden focuses on adults 18-39 years of age who have cancer, a population that he has called “under-supported and underserved.”

First Descents is holding four week-long camps in Northwest Montana this month, based out of the Glacier National Park area. One camp is labeled “FD1,” meaning it is for first-time participants. The other three camps are “FD2” for returning participants.

The FD2 camps are held July 3-9, 17-23 and 24-30. The FD1 camp is scheduled for July 10-16. The First Descents website says that the FD1 program is “in honor of continued support from Chuck and Jinny Ludden,” Ludden’s parents.

Participants are adults either battling cancer or in remission. At the camps, they have the opportunity to kayak, hike and rock climb. The FD2 program is more intensive as it involves participants with previous First Descents experience.

The camps start out with an instructional paddling course on Lake McDonald before moving on to varying degrees of whitewater on the North Fork of the Flathead River in later days. There is also time for socializing and other activities.

Ludden will be in the area to help out with the programs, finding time in a schedule that still includes professional kayaking and various other ventures.

“The experience is designed to allow healing to happen naturally and organically,” according to the First Descents website.

“During the week-long First Descents experience, young adult survivors are empowered through conquering legitimate outdoor challenges to push their limits and face their fears,” the website says, “and by doing so, they are able to regain the confidence and self-efficacy lost to cancer.”

For more information and to learn how to donate, visit www.firstdescents.org.